Sustainable agriculture for renewable biomass production: what, why and how?

Guest blog by Mazin Al-Hashimi, MTK311 HT19

Agriculture is both part of the problem and part of the solution to climate change. Cultivation and food production as most of the other human activities, affects the environment. Food production accounts for up to 35% of global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and its increasing rapidly in order to keep up with population and economic growth [1]. Recent studies indicate that food production should increase by 70% by 2050 (Glenn et al., 2015). In the other hand, arable land area continues to decrease due to climatic change, urbanization, and industrialization. In addition, the competition of the highly demanded energy-crops which potentially participates in higher food prices, deforestation, less biodiversity, and decreasing of arable land for food production is increasing progressively.

Photo by Mazin Al-Hashimi, Uppsala 2019

Agriculture for both energy and food production lies behind the majority of emissions of eutrophying substances to the sea and other watercourses. Also, expansion of agricultural land and structural changes of agriculture could lead to lacking of biodiversity. Additionally, agriculture and the following stages in the food production process are highly dependent on fossil fuels.

Before talking about the potentials of sustainable agriculture, let’s first try to define sustainability. The simplest description of sustainability is to maintain the functionality of the system without compromising its capacity to do so in the future [2]. However, the effect of climate change compromises the functionality of food system by contributing to water shortage and pest exacerbation [3]. Hansen (1996) describes three different approaches concerning sustainable agriculture: Sustainability as an ideology e.g., reducing the use of external inputs and utilizing local resources and biological processes as much as possible. Sustainability as goal achievement, were the goals varies between different systems and depends on who defines them. And finally is the sustainability as a means for agriculture to continue. Hence, sustainable agriculture is one that can continue despite changes in external conditions including economic, social and environmental changes [4].

Photo by Mazin Al-Hashimi, Uppsala 2019

Sustainable agriculture supports biodiversity and tends to prevent soil degradation and environmental pollution by maintaining healthy and active microorganisms and ecosystem through sensible management of natural resources. It’s also support healthy crops and animals by using natural fertilizers and reduces the use of chemicals and prohibits mass production (intensive agriculture) in order to reduce diseases and GHG emissions. It’s important to mention that sustainable agriculture also aim to reduce food waste by minimizing food processing industry to shorten the gap between producers and consumers, in other words sustainable agriculture tends to increase food production and lower the environmental impact.

One interesting aspect to investigate is the number of individuals that can be fed by what is produced on the farm (Cassidy et al., 2013). In this case, the indicator may be: produced kcal per hectare or kilo of protein per hectare and their environmental impact (climate impact per kilo). These results can be then compared to see how the farm contributes to global food responsibility. One way to evaluate the environmental impacts of a product or a process is the life cycle assessment (LCA) which normally involves energy balance (net energy production) and GHG emissions (climate impact) [5]. LCA can also be used to calculate other environmental effects such as eutrophication, acidification, land and energy use.

Photo by Mazin Al-Hashimi, Uppsala 2019 Many practises can be done in order to achieve sustainability in agriculture. One method is by farming of perennial crops that all function together in a designed system that mimics how plants in a natural ecosystem would function, this methods calls Permaculture. Other method calls biodynamic farming and includes raising a variety of animals in a way that they increase soil fertility and enhance plant growth and biodiversity of plants and the beneficial insects. This will decrease chemical fertilisers and enhance ecosystem and microorganisms. Supporting the biodiversity of plants is very important for the sustainability of agriculture. Due to the industrialization of food production, the world has lost almost 90% of the fruit and vegetable seed varieties that were once available over the last 100 years, [6].

Allowing the animals to graze and live in natural pasture enhance sustainability and contributes for healthier animals and hence better products. Moreover, it would reduce the required amounts of feeder and enrich the grazing land. One of the most effective agricultural control strategies to preventing the loss of soil fertility and reduce pests and diseases is by planting of a diverse of crops in the same area and rotating these crops seasonally. This method calls polycultures.

These were few of many methods that can be used to achieve sustainable agriculture both for food and energy production. Most importantly is to prioritise food security, biodiversity and wildlife over industrialization, intensive agriculture and energy production. Our ancestors farmed the land sustainably for thousands of years simply because they had stronger bonds to their lands and lived in harmony with nature, so maybe this is what we really need to do.

References:

[1] Vermeulen, Sonja & Campbell, Bruce Morgan & Ingram, John. (2012). Climate Change and Food Systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 37. 195-222. 10.1146/annurev-environ-020411-130608. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234146044_Climate_Change_and_Food_Systems

[2] Saka, A.R.; Mtukuso, A.P.; Mbale, B.J.; Phiri, I.M.G. The role of research-extension-farmer linkages in vegetable production and development in Malawi. In Vegetable Research and Development in Malawi. Review and Planning Workshop Proceedings, Lilongwe, Malawi, 23–24 September 2003; Chadha, M.L., Oluoch, M.O., Saka, A.R., Mtukuso, A.P., Daudi, A., Eds.; World Vegetable Center (AVRDC): Shanhua, Taiwan, 2003.

[3] Munthali, D.C. Evaluation of cabbage varieties to cabbage aphid. Afr. Entomol. 2009, 17, 1–7. [CrossRef]

[4] DiClemente, R., Ponton, L., & Hansen, W. (1996). Handbook of adolescent health risk behavior. New York: Plenum.

[5] Cheng, J. (Ed.). (2017). Biomass to renewable energy processes. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ep.bib.mdh.se

[6] Greentumble. (2019, September 4). 10 Sustainable Farming Methods and Practices. Retrieved from https://greentumble.com/10-sustainable-farming-methods-and-practices/.

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